Under Ptolemies and Seleucids

In the summer of 332 B.C.E., Palestine was conquered by Alexander the Great. The land and people of Israel were now part of the Hellenistic world. Alexander passed through Palestine first on his way to Gaza during his campaign to subjugate the Phoenician coast and then on his way from Egypt to Babylonia. He may have spent some time in Palestine dealing with a revolt in Samaria, and it is possible that he met then with Jewish leaders. By the time Alexander died at age thirty-three in 323 B.C.E., he had conquered the entire area from Macedonia to India. Palestine was part of this new empire.

After Alexander’s death, his generals, known as the Diadochi (“successors”), were unable to maintain the unity of the empire and it soon fragmented. Individual generals were appointed, on the old Persian pattern, to rule as satraps over particular areas. In 323 B.C.E., Ptolemy took control of Egypt. This date is regarded as the beginning of the Ptolemaic Empire, although he was not officially crowned until 305 B.C.E. Seleucus became satrap of Babylon in 322 B.C.E. After some difficulties, he had established himself and his empire on a sound footing by 312 B.C.E., extending his authority to the entire eastern part of Alexander’s domain. The rest went to Cassander in Macedonia and Lysimachus in Thrace. The Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms were destined to playa profound role in the history of Hellenistic Palestine.

During the period of the Diadochi, Palestine changed hands between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids five times. The lack of stability prevented Hellenism from making more than a modest beginning in the country in the early years of the Hellenistic period. The unstable situation must also have fostered some degree of local autonomy, enhancing the
already significant role of the high priest in the affairs of Judea.

By 301 B.C.E., however, Ptolemy had finally established a firm hold on Palestine. Despite the damage caused by their ongoing conflict with the Seleucids, the Ptolemies were able to maintain at least de facto control over Palestine. Considerable information about this period comes from the Zenon papyri, a collection of administrative documents from the archives of an Egyptian finance minister, some of which were sent to him by his agent in the Land of Israel. These documents tell us of Palestine under the rule of Ptolemy II Philadelphus (283–246 B.C.E.). The country was often beset by Seleucid attacks and bedouin incursions. Ptolemaic military units were stationed throughout Palestine, and many Greek cities were established. Many of these were set up as cleruchies (military colonies) in which soldiers who married native women were given homes and fields, thus fostering the intermarriage which was so much a part of the Hellenistic world. In addition, an extensive Ptolemaic bureaucracy managed governmental affairs and taxation. Central to this officialdom was the goal of developing economic life and trade. Among the exports to Egypt from Palestine and southern Syria were grain, olive oil, smoked fish, cheese, meat, dried figs, honey, dates, and other products. Palestine also assumed importance as a crossroads for the spice trade.

In contrast with what we know about Ptolemaic affairs in Palestine, we have virtually no information about Jewish political developments. Judea continued to be governed by the high priest and the priestly aristocracy. One of the few incidents we know about is the quarrel about taxation between the high priest Onias II and Ptolemy III Euergetes (246– 221 B.C.E.), who reportedly visited the Jerusalem Temple. The end result of the dispute was the appointment, in 242 B.C.E., of the young Joseph son of Tobiah, a nephew of the high priest, as tax collector for the entire country. The rivalry between the Tobiad family and the Oniad high priests eventually played a part in the attempted radical Hellenization of Judea later on in the second century B.C.E.

In 221 B.C.E. the Seleucid king Antiochus III invaded Palestine for the first time. When this attempt failed, he persisted in seeking an opportunity to gain control of this important land bridge. The death of King Ptolemy IV Philopator in 203 B.C.E. opened the way for him. In 201 B.C.E. he invaded the country again and quickly conquered it. By 198 B.C.E. the Seleucids were solidly in control, and would remain so up to the Maccabean Revolt (168–164 B.C.E.). By the time the Ptolemaic sway over Palestine came to an end, Greek cities had been established throughout the country, and Hellenism had sunk strong foundations, ultimately to tear the nation apart before Judea regained its independence.

In the years of conflict between the Ptolemies and Seleucids each of the rivals was supported by a Jewish party or faction. The Gerousia, or council of elders, mentioned for the first time in sources from this era, backed the Seleucids. Indeed, the high priest Simeon the Just (ca. 200 B.C.E.), who probably headed the Gerousia, is known to have supported the Seleucids. He must have regained the power over taxation which had been assigned to Joseph ben Tobiah and was now charged with refurbishing the Temple and the city. When Antiochus III (223–187 B.C.E) won control of Judea, he affirmed the right of the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws. Yet only some thirty years later the Jewish proponents of extreme Hellenization would see his son, the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes, as the agent who would carry out their plans to Hellenize Jerusalem and its people.

The Jerusalem Temple and the Priesthood

We have already seen how difficult it had been to reestablish the Jerusalem Temple and how the Judean leaders struggled to make even a modest Temple building a reality. Over the years, various improvements were added to the Temple complex, so that by the eve of the Hellenistic reform, it had been expanded and refurbished, and had become a significant depository for the funds of both Palestinian and Diaspora Jews. Moreover, the Temple’s position on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem gave it great strategic value. The entire hill, the Temple Mount, was occupied by the Temple precincts, although the mountain itself was no doubt somewhat smaller than the present-day structure, which was built by King Herod. Antiochus III confirmed the Jewish law that non-Jews could enter only the outermost area of the Temple Mount. People afflicted with ritual impurities were excluded from the Temple precincts.

The Temple structure was by now a complex of chambers devoted to specific purposes. Besides the courts of women, Israelites, and priests, and the Temple building itself, including the Holy of Holies, there were dressing rooms, storage areas, and other designated rooms. A stage was used for the priestly blessing and for the levitical songs which were part of the daily rituals. A large altar as well as special preparation areas made possible the sacrifice of animals in accord with pentateuchal legislation. The incense altar and the menorah were positioned in the priests’ courtyard. Beautiful decorations adorned the Temple.

The officiants, both priests and Levites, were divided into twenty-four groups, called courses, each of which served for a week, rotating throughout the year. Each course was headed by one of its members and was, in turn, divided into subgroups. The priests sacrificed and offered the animals; the Levites assisted them and, in particular, sang psalms while the ritual took place. The laws of the Torah were strictly applied in order to guarantee the purity and sanctity of the priests, who were descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The specialized vestments described in the Pentateuch were worn, and the ages of service were determined by the interpretation of the relevant biblical passages. Indeed, in most matters, the Torah and its exegesis were the authority on which decisions about sacrificial and priestly law were made.

Daily services were held in accord with the prescriptions of the Torah providing for morning and late afternoon sacrifices. The biblical psalms played a prominent role in the ritual, but it is difficult to determine to what extent other prayers were recited. It seems most likely that a detailed liturgy entered the Temple worship in the Hasmonean (Maccabean) period, as will be discussed more fully in chapter 12. Various musical instruments were played by the Levites to accompany the sacrifices and the psalms. Trumpets and shofars were sounded during various rites, as commanded by the Pentateuch. Special festival sacrifices and offerings, the bringing of tithes, other emoluments, voluntary sacrifices, and atonement offerings also were part of the Temple’s regular ritual.

The Torah had commanded certain priestly and levitical portions and tithes as a means of ensuring that the Temple officials would be adequately supported. These offerings were collected and distributed by the Temple administration in the early years of the Second Temple. The high priest and his officials handled the collection and disbursement of other tax moneys as well for most of the Second Temple period. Later on, however, the central collection and distribution of tithes and offerings gave way to local handling of these portions, a pattern which had probably been in effect in First Temple times.

The Temple was much more than just a religious and cultic institution during the third and second centuries B.C.E. It served as the governmental center of the Jews to the extent to which the Jewish community operated as an autonomous unit within the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires. The high priest and his assistants, over time, accumulated considerable temporal and financial power and controlled the internal affairs of the Judean populace. When, later on, Hellenizers attained the priesthood and attempted to turn the Temple into a Hellenistic cult center, they were therefore challenging not only the religious tradition, but also the very nature of the Jewish nation. When inexorable historical forces led, by the end of the first century C.E., to the destruction of the Temple and the abandonment of sacrifice as a primary religious activity, a new page would be turned in the history of Judaism.

The Gerousia

Evidence of various kinds indicates that there was a Jewish representative body or council during the early Hellenistic period. The Talmud identifies those who were associated with Ezra and Nehemiah in the restoration period, and who continued their work after them, as having formed an early representative group, known as the “Men of the Great Assembly.” Bodies of this type included members of the various leadership and aristocratic classes.

Although there is, in fact, no direct evidence in the Bible for the existence of a Jewish representative body, many biblical scholars, following Josephus, have pointed to the elders of the First Temple period as constituting a group of this type. Similar bodies of elders or aristocrats who were consulted by the ruler and whose approval he required functioned during the conquest of Canaan in the time of the judges. Talmudic literature assumed that the Men of the Great Assembly, in the era of the return, had handed down the traditions which ultimately made up Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. Some modern scholars accept the existence of such a group, but see it as an ad hoc body, convened only on momentous occasions in the history of the nation.

No contemporary evidence can be cited for a representative group in the Persian period, but during the Hellenistic period the Gerousia (Greek for “council of elders”) occupied this role. There were also Jewish Gerousias in some parts of the Hellenistic Diaspora. The Gerousia may be seen as a forerunner of the later Sanhedrin, known from the Herodian period, and also of the Bet Din Ha-Gadol, the highest of the rabbinic courts.

In the edict he issued following his conquest of Jerusalem, Antiochus III mentions that he was given a lavish reception by the Gerousia, in consequence of which he exempted its members, together with the Temple officials, from certain taxes. He says nothing of any separate welcoming ceremony conducted by the high priest. Similarly, during the Maccabean period, we find that Antiochus IV directed his official correspondence, not to the high priest, but to the Gerousia, apparently seeing it as the governing body of Judea. Jews outside the Land of Israel in the same period also regarded the Gerousia as representing the people as a whole. The membership of the Gerousia seems to have included both priestly and lay leaders, the latter no doubt coming from the aristocracy and connected closely with the priesthood. This is consistent with the composition of the later Sanhedrin, which was made up of both Pharisaic and Sadducean (priestly) elements.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition- A History of Second Temple & Rabbinic Judaism, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.